Life After Firefighting: It’s a Matter of Time

By:  Robin Lawson with Robert Avsec

Breast cancer—and probably most cancers when you think about it—lulls one into a sense of Breast-Cancer-hormonecomplacency.  The first, and even the second time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t physically feel as if I had a serious health issue going on.  I felt tired, but at the same time of my breast cancer diagnosis I also found out that I was hypothyroid, a chronic auto immune disorder, but one that could be managed.

When you have a serious medical problem, you quickly learn that you can only maintain your sanity by dealing with it “one day at a time”.  Just finding out what’s going on with your body, what the doctors want to put your body through to eventually heal you.  At first you don’t care about the surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy (that’s nasty toxic red substance called Adriamycin they push through your body).

Yes, you are worried and scared as hell, but you just want to get it over with and be healed!  Done and over with and get on with your life.  It’s funny because everything is a process, has a plan, as to the outcome of what you want to accomplish just as with my retirement and workers compensation case that I referred to in my previous post.

What I’ve learned after Two Bouts with Breast Cancer

  • Get informed and do what you have to do to stay informed.  The Internet is the “gateway” to 5 year survival ratemore information about breast cancer, treatment options, and coping strategies.
  • You control your attitude.  Hold your head up high and get out the Farrah Fawcett wig!  When you get up in the morning, always look your best, put on makeup and if you have never worn that red lipstick, now is the time.
  • You think what you’re going through is tough.  You don’t have to look too far these days to see somebody else who is having a harder time, so always count your blessings.
  • Start putting your health back on the top of the priority list.  It’s easy to do when the Mammography phototreatments for your breast cancer practically “kill you to heal you.”  I found great strength during that time (both times) by staying focused on the ways I was going to improve my overall health, not just beat breast cancer.

Over the six year period when I was fighting for what I knew was right (my Worker’s Compensation case) and my personnel fight to save my life, I couldn’t have imagined how many surgeries I would have to face.  Physically I had about a dozen surgeries, most of them having to do with my breast cancer diagnosis: a lumpectomy, a breast lift, a mastectomy, implants, and several reconstructive surgeries including abdominoplasty, aka, “tummy tuck.”

chiari-malformation-lgHaving so many surgeries can have long lasting effects on the body, but we all want to heal or cure what ails us and sometime those little annoying and chronic issues are something we can live with day-to-day.  But one in particular just came out of nowhere.   It’s called chiari one malformation  and it took me three years to finally figure out that this was what was going on with me and that I had this condition.  The “funny thing” is that I had diagnosed myself by watching the television series, Mystery Diagnosis.

If you’ve not watched it, it’s a show where some people have strange symptoms and they have a hard time figuring out what’s going on until years later, stumping the doctors until they get much worse.  Well at the time when I was watching this one show it seemed as if I was meant to watch it; I was having all the same symptoms as this much younger girl, but hers were much more severe.

I was totally intrigued as I watched the show and I knew for sure that I indeed had this condition.  I had current x-rays at my desk at home and after the show ended I pulled them out and I could see that this was the case:  I had a chiari malformation.  I took the x-rays and showed them to my mother downstairs and had told her about the show.  She could see it as clearly as I could, and I immediately started to look up this condition and finally got an answer as what was going on.

My symptom’s had progressed to where we were all getting very worried, e.g., unbearable headaches, such that I would go to a pain clinic and get pain shots in the back of my head every 6-8 weeks.  I also had tightness in my throat—dry and as if it was slowly closing—and constantly drinking bottles of water mostly at night.  I found myself always having to lie down and bright lights made those headaches much worse.  When I would go out with my mother I couldn’t even keep up with her because I was getting so weak.

I scheduled another CT scan and told the x-ray technician to look at the base of my skull because thatChiari CT scan is where all the pain was coming from.  Here was one diagnosis that I couldn’t wait to get!  I knew that’s what I had and that I was finally going to get treatment for it.

Two days later my doctor and I got the report back and there it was in capital letters:  Chiari One Malformation.  I was relieved and nervous at the same time, because I also knew what was to come, but at least I knew.  I proceeded to find a neurosurgeon and scheduled the surgery for six weeks later.  I was in the hospital for two days, and got a 4-5 inch incision with 17 staples in the back of my head.  After about seven weeks in bed, and close to a year to heal enough, I began to feel somewhat normal again.  My doctor and I believe that I’m about 90 percent healed, but I do have to be careful and I have some minor lasting affects.

So why am I sharing this story with you?

Physically we never know how much our bodies can take and time does heal all wounds, but it’s the time when you are healing that makes us or breaks us.  I have had numerous surgeries following my breast cancer diagnosis and have plenty of scars to show for it.

As if that wouldn’t be enough, then along came the chiari one malformation diagnosis.  What’s that adage?  What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?  I believe that very much because I’m a much stronger person because of my experience.

Rhoda Mae kerrIf you are in a leadership position in your Fire and EMS organization—doesn’t matter whether it’s as a first-line supervisor or the Chief of the department—you’re going to encounter people under your care who are facing medical challenges in their lives.  Advances in medical care for all diseases has greatly enhanced the ability of people to survive illness and return to healthy and productive lives.fire_chief 1

In many cases the most important component of their treatment will involve time.  The time to get a diagnosis, get the proper treatment, and recover from that treatment.  A caring and empathetic manager and organization can make a world of difference, especially when an illness puts an individual’s life and career in jeopardy.


About the Author

2013-09-25 08.09.31Robin Lawson medically retired from the Las Vegas (NV) Fire Department in 2006 after 14 years on the job.  She is a two-time breast cancer survivor and the first woman firefighter in the USA to win a breast cancer worker’s compensation case related to the job of a firefighter following a six-year journey through the legal system in Nevada.

Ms. Lawson now makes her home in the Orange County, California area and works to help educate firefighters, particularly women, on the dangers of cancer on the job.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail,